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Critical Theory for Political Theology 3.0

Jesus as a Political Atheist

To think of this empire as anything other than wrapped up in mimesis is to think otherwise. This essay explores how mimesis has captured us all and conscripted us into its political ontology. This essay offers another way to consider being; another way to find ourselves with the introduction of Jesus as a Political Atheist.

I was dabbling not long ago in the works of René Girard, and came across a scholar of Girard, Luke Burgis. Burgis wrote a book titled Wanting, and I found it very compelling. Wanting helps outline how we desire and how mimetic actions follow. As I dug deeper, I began to wonder what Girard thought about atheists and atheism, since so much of Girard’s work is framed by desire and mimesis. Is Theism and Atheism wrapped up in some kind of mimetic desire, or can there be some elements of anti-mimesis in either of these? Again, I was curious and sometimes my curiosities get the best of me!

         Mimesis specifally is defined as human desire. Additionally, mimesis is connected to the concept of imitation. René Girard thought mimesis was not linear but the result of “a mimetic process in which people imitate models who endow objects with value.” Take Nike for example. Michael Jordan wore Nike shoes. He became the literal model for Nike and exemplified the value and power of “Just Do It.” Models are what are created by mimesis. We end up patterning ourselves after these models, whether good or bad. Models, like Jordan and other figures who model a product as a value, can help and also hurt us. These models entice us. Just look at all the social capital Nike has. We have been lured by Nike and other models. The desire to wear Nike and buy Jordans have accelerated over time. Michael Jordan as the mimetic model for Nike has saturated us in such a way that we cannot imagine Nike without Michael Jordan!

         Or, take the Super Bowl, for example. A ritual game that happens every year. That game and the ritual itself is wrapped up in mimesis. We desire a winner; we long for a model to display the kind of sport that winners only can display. This mimesis is like religion in many respects. The ritual of music, of dance, or sport. It is liturgical in its display and different sporting brands appear on the bodies of different sports teams and broadcasters. This ritual game lures us in in deep ways only to have us shout and scream for the winner and denounce the loser. Mimetic desire is wrapped up in what we want. Many of us want social capital; we want money; we want power. The Super Bowl is one such moment where money and power are on display in a kind of hyper drive manner.

         Mimesis grips us all; we are conscripted into mimesis; in many respects, mimetic desire is the desire of hegemony, so it is up to us to discern a counter hegemonic way to sojourn. In the same ways that we are conscripted into modernity, we are also conscripted in the mimetic desire of our age, rooted in hegemonic structures. Because mimetic desire is the desire of hegemony, we must make certain that we know and understand the models that are tethering us into the hegemony of the political sphere. Take today’s religious landscape for example. Evangelicalism has turned into white Christian Nationalism and it is gripped in mimesis. The mimetic desire of white Christian Nationalism is a kind of theism that is out performing much of mainline religious ideologies, because it is draped in desire, desire for power, prestige, and privileges that only mimesis can offer. The model for this mimetic desire is Donald Trump. Unlike Michael Jordan, Trump as a mimetic model is dangerous, which is why we need a counter to mimetic desire in today’s world.

         Like anything, there is a counter to mimesis, which is called anti-mimesis. Anti-mimetic models go against the grain; they are counter hegemonic at their very root; they do not mimic hegemonic desires and they destabilize existing power structures. I began to be interested in how we can collectively become counter hegemonic and I looked at the person and work of Jesus to consider that path. Jesus is counter hegemonic and anti-mimetic because Jesus flips the script on power, privileges, and prestige. He also socializes social capital, so that we all have access to money, not just the few.

         I began to work on a project around Jesus as anti-mimetic, because I find Jesus and his teachings to be counter hegemonic; something we should recover and return to, but then discovered that Girard called Jesus a political atheist. I was hooked, immediately! What does this mean? How does this change our attitudes about Jesus? Does it mean anything for us today? How might this shape and shift our political theologies if we affirm and recognize Jesus as a Political Atheist? Could this enliven our political worlds and open up conversations around a larger, more generous theology of politics? I hope so!

         Of course, according to Aristotle, we are all political animals. We each do politics in a variety of ways, some meaningful and others harmful. Certainly politics throughout the ages has waxed and waned; empires have risen and fallen. What if you texturize politics with atheism and look to the person and work of Jesus to describe political atheism? What happens? What happens to politics and what happens to the person of Jesus? How might this phrase, Jesus as a Political Atheist, generate a more helpful discussion regarding both the person and work of Jesus and today’s political machines?

         First, let me tease out the meaning of atheism as it pertains to this essay. In short, atheism is the antithesis of theism and the lack of belief in gods. Atheism is political because all belief is lived out. Another way to say this is that all theology is ethics, even atheistic theology. Political Atheism is the active denial of the belief that a Head of State is a god or appointed by god. Political Atheism is an orientation toward counter hegemony in praxis.

         I admit I come to the person and work of Jesus as a liberationist, inspired by theologies of liberation from the Global South, particularly Latin America. I am also interested in becoming anti-mimetic in every way, countering the hegemonies that are death-bringing. I am inspired by Jesus who took no shit and did not harm, and revolutionized Judaism in particular ways.

         When I think about the person and work of Jesus, there is a teleology; there is an end point. It is bring heaven to earth. For Liberationists, that is the reign of God. When I call Jesus a political atheist, I am intending to suggest that Jesus was not invested in earthy reigns or earthly politics, kings, queens, or emperors. Jesus was interested in a kind of politics that was rooted in relationality, not the transitions of earthly / worldly politics that incite violence, harm, and destruction. You can see how Jesus outfoxed the empire as a political atheist, teaching in parables and exemplifying anti-mimesis at every turn. He allowed himself to be found in the Garden and with a kiss on the cheek, the empire seized him for his political atheism; for his refusal to pay allegiance to Rome.

         What might this encourage us to do? How might this encourage us to engage a kind of atheism that is rooted in politics? I think the work of bringing heaven to earth demands a kind of political atheism. There needs to be a rejection of hegemonic politics that produce and incite harm and destruction. Much of our global politics are death-bringing, logics that follow a hegemonic way. We need to embrace a kind of repentance (metanoia) and lean into political atheism as we follow Jesus at the end of empire. With the rise of global fascism, we see how the desire for power is obstructing the view of the reign of God, or the active work of bringing heaven to earth.

         Becoming counter hegemonic is becoming a political atheist in a generative manner. Following Jesus at the end of empire as a political atheist demands that we engage in counter hegemonic practices that accelerate our divestment in earthly politics and earthly power regimes. The world palpitates for hope, and I find that when we allow Jesus to be a political atheist, we create the kind of spaciousness we need to see the ways of Jesus materialize. When the Zapatistas called for another possible world, they were calling for political atheism. We should follow in that way as our American empire fails on a global scale. We should claim Jesus as a political atheist and then follow his ways, so that our desire will manifest bringing heaven to earth.

The Politics of Atheism

Symposium Essays

The Politics of Black Atheism in the United States

From the mid-19th century, African American atheists have been central figures in the Black Freedom Struggle. Their political activism was oftentimes explicitly motivated by their atheism and has provided an important example to contemporary Black atheists and humanists.

Performing Indifference: On Atheism and Political Theology

This essay outlines an ontological form of atheism to suggest novel ways to conceptualize political theology and forms of socio-political praxis. An atheism of indifference is offered as a means to resist the theological framing of socio-political issues.

Atheism and the Critique of Sovereignty

By disrupting pernicious claims to transcendence, atheist political theologies can help us redress suffering in particular places while keeping hope for radical transformation.


Jesus as a Political Atheist

To think of this empire as anything other than wrapped up in mimesis is to think otherwise. This essay explores how mimesis has captured us all and conscripted us into its political ontology. This essay offers another way to consider being; another way to find ourselves with the introduction of Jesus as a Political Atheist.

Remembering immanence: a short appeal for a good atheism in troubled times

What is the role of atheism in bringing hope to troubled times? Controversially, I/Stacey stress(es) that atheism too often reproduces the transcendence it claims to reject. Instead, bringing insights from my/his time among activists, I/he argue(s) that a good atheism must be in touch with immanence.

Tearing Down the Heavens: Marx’ Critique of Religion, Atheism, and Political Economy

For Marx, religion is more than “the opium of the people,” it is the mirror of society turned upside down. This essay examines Marx’s critique of religion as well as his critique of other contemporary critiques of religion. This critique of religion became the starting point of his critique of political theology and, later, political economy.


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